Health

9 Million People Die Prematurely Each Year From Pollution

A comprehensive international study published in <em>The Lancet</em> found that contaminated water and dirty air kills more people each year than war and violence, hitting poor nations and low-income communities hardest.

Pollution is responsible for more than nine million premature deaths worldwide each year, killing 15 times more people than war and violence, according to a new study published in The Lancet.

Researchers, using World Health Organization (WHO) data from 130 countries, examined ambient air pollution, household air pollution from solid fuels, unsafe drinking water, unsafe sanitation, and lead exposure. Their results show that pollution is responsible for three times more deaths each year than tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS combined. 

“My colleagues and I were stunned by the sheer magnitude of the total numbers of death caused by pollution and by the massive economic costs associated with pollution-related disease,” Philip Landrigan, dean of global health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and co-chair of the commission that authored the report, told Seeker. “We knew going in that these numbers would be large, but we had no idea how large they would turn out to be.”

Most of the nine million deaths each year occur in developing nations where there are fewer regulations for industries that pollute the environment. Pollution also kills people in developed countries like the US and Japan, however these deaths tend to be concentrated in poor areas.

“Pollution is highly unjust,” Landrigan said. “Ninety-two percent of all pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. And in the United States and other high-income countries, pollution-related disease and death are concentrated among minorities and the poor. Think Flint, [Michigan].”

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The data shows that air-pollution is the biggest culprit in pollution-related deaths. In 2015, 6.5 million people died from illnesses related to breathing in harmful chemicals like mercury and arsenic, as well as smoke from wood-burning stoves. 

Some of the world’s poorest laborers suffer from workplace exposure to carcinogens, like dye factory workers who develop bladder cancer or coal miners who contract lung disease, which account for 800,000 deaths each year. Nearly two million people die annually from contaminated drinking water and unsafe sanitation, which can cause parasitic infections and cholera.

India had the highest umber of deaths from pollution each year at 2.5 million, followed by China with 1.8 million.

 “High-income countries need to share the lessons we have learned in pollution control with low-and middle-income countries to help them avoid the mistakes of the past,” Landrigan said.

The report also zeroed in on the monetary consequences of pollution, which is responsible for 1.7 percent of annual health spending in high-income countries like the US and up to 7 percent of health spending in heavily polluted and rapidly developing low-and middle-income countries. The authors estimate that the cost globally of pollutants adds up to approximately $4.6 trillion per year, which is about 6 percent of the global gross domestic product.

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While certain types of pollution like contaminated water have decreased in recent years, pollution from some sources, like industry, has increased. This data comes at a time when the Trump administration considers rolling back regulations on industry, vehicles, and power plants.

American views on environmental regulation are deeply partisan, according to a 2017 Pew survey, which found 58 percent of Republicans though they cost too many jobs and hurt the economy. But Landrigan said it’s simply not the case. “The claim that pollution control stifles economic growth, kills jobs, and drags down the economy is false and has repeatedly been proven to be untrue,” he said.

Landrigan points to the health and economic benefits achieved by high-income countries like the US that have enacted legislation aimed at pollution control. “As a result, our air and water are now cleaner, health has improved and people are living longer,” he said. “High-income countries have achieved this progress while increasing GDP by nearly 250 percent.”

The biggest takeaway, according to Landrigan, is that pollution reduction is an achievement for global health and the global economy, simultaneously. “Pollution control is a winnable battle,” he said. “The control of pollution will return billions of dollars to the economies of countries around the world as it has already in the United States.”

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